Saturday 23 July 2022

What I'm Watching: July 2022


A recap of my month in movies, media and streaming, featuring Starstruck on ABC iView, the finale of Stranger Things season four, HBO Max miniseries The Staircase and catching up with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy's sci-fi headspin, Westworld.

Starstruck seasons one and two (ABC iView)

It's not often I seek out a show based on a single actor; but I loved Kiwi comedian Rose Matafeo on Taskmaster, and hearing that she has an HBO Max sitcom – airing in Australia on ABC – was all the reason I needed to sign up for the service and give it a spin.
Starstruck follows aimless twenty-something Jessie (Matafeo), as she juggles two jobs and an uneven love life in London. One New Year's Eve, she meets and hooks up with Tom (Nikesh Patel), who she doesn't realise is a famous movie star until the morning after.

From there, the show is about the ups and downs of their friendship slash relationship – as they weave their way in and out of each others lives over the course of a year in season one, and then after they decide to give it a go for real in season two.

Short and sharp, Funny without being forced, and anchored by two very charismatic leads, there's a lot to love about Starstruck. Not the kind of thing I usually go in for, but Matafeo's quirky Kiwi sensibilities are a big part of the charm.

The Staircase (Binge)

This slick HBO Max true crime miniseries is packed to the rafters with talent; Colin Firth plays Michael Peterson, a wealthy North Carolina socialite with aspirations of running for Durham City Council. However, when Michael's wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) winds up dead at the bottom of the staircase in their family home, all signs point to Michael being the murderer – or do they? 

Spanning eight episodes and nearly two decades of the Peterson family's life, from 2001 when Kathleen is killed to 2017, The Staircase explores the American judicial system, follows a documentary crew as they plot the Peterson case over a number of years, and unpacks the unconventional family dynamic that the case orbits around. 

Rounding out the impressive ensemble cast are Sophie Turner, Dane DeHaan, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rosemarie DeWitt, Parker Posey, Odessa Young and Juliette Binoche. It really is an embarrassment of riches, so much so that some standout (Binoche, Stuhlbarg) while others sort of fade into the background (Posey, DeHaan). 

But the real MVPs are the lead duo, Firth and Collette. The latter literally never phones it in, and has so much more to offer when the show gives her more than the 'scorned wife' archetype. Similarly, Firth is scarily good here – I wouldn't be surprised if he's is front and centre during the Emmy season. 

Kathleen's death – shown three different times, Rashomon-style – is grisly and confronting, while the legalese can be a bit turgid at times. But on the whole, a really great series – one that is more interested in the idea of 'you can never know what truly happened' than telling a straightforward whodunnit story.  

Stranger Things season four part two (Netflix)

Is Stranger Things the biggest show in the world? After season four, it certainly feels that way – the chatter around it has been inescapable. And after the two-part, feature-length finale to the show's latest run of episodes, it feels like Netflix's flagship series is bigger and better than ever. 

That's not to say season four didn't hit its fair share of bum notes; I still can't reconcile how pointless, lethargic and inert that whole Kamchatka sideplot was – like seriously, can we cool it with the kooky Russians and cut back to some characters we actually care about?

But the good stuff is seriously great – blockbuster television at its best. Everything back in Hawkins, with the core cast of teens and tweens, is gripping from beginning to end. Millie Bobbie Brown really comes into her own in episode eight 'Papa', while Sadie Sink's continued arc shows where her strengths as an actor lie. 

Not everyone gets ample time to shine – we're looking at you, Finn Wolfhard, if that is your real name – and the pacing is well outta whack – episode nine definitely didn't need to run longer than 90 minutes, let alone two hours – but the overall impact of Stranger Things in 2022 has been massive. Roll on that fifth and final season. 

Ambulance (Blu-ray)

Branded as something of a flop when it hit cinemas back in April, Michael Bay's new movie Ambulance is one of his best – up there with the likes of Armageddon and Bad Boys II

Jake Gyllenhaal and Yaya Abdul Mateen play brothers, the former a prolific bank robber, the latter a former soldier trying to go straight. 

When their latest gig goes awry, they hijack an ambulance and take its resident paramedic, played by Eiza Gonzalez, hostage. What follows is a frenetic and explosive chase through the streets of Los Angeles, as the runaway ambulance is pursued by hordes of punchy police cars.

Bay is famous for crafting crazy action set pieces, and Ambulance is no different. But it does feel new and distinct, through Bay's extensive use of soaring, whirling drone shots that chase the action, plunge from atop skyscrapers and race through buildings at impossible speeds for conventional cameras. 

Westworld seasons three and four (Binge)

I loved the first two seasons of HBO's Westworld, with the show's mix of intense science-fiction and Western rootin' tootin' scratching a very specific itch. So I have no idea why I didn't pick the show back up again when season three aired back in 2020.

So, with the show's fourth season out now, I decided to dip back in and see and what I'd been missing.

Season three and what we've seen of season four have largely jettisoned Westworld's original premise, in favour of something new and bigger in scope. Gone is the Wild West park, replaced with future cityscapes and the wider 'outside' world. The plot is bigger in scope, and less knotty – there's still some timey-wimey stuff to wrap our heads around, but it's nowhere near as confusing as season two.

So far, season four is a return to form. I liked season three, don't get me wrong, but it was easily the weakest storyline. Four builds on what didn't work, and continues to move the plot into new and interesting places. As far as slick sci-fi with big ideas goes, there's few out there with production value and acting talent as sophisticated as Westworld.

Morning Wars season two (Apple TV+)

Season two of Morning Wars – known as The Morning Show outside Australia – sees the cast and crew of this fictitious American breakfast TV show grappling with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yep, in the same way that season one featured episodes about real-life mass shootings and forest fires, season two is set in those first few months of 2020, when the world was clued in on just how devastating COVID would become in the coming weeks and months.

I'm not really sure where I stand on TV and movies 'doing COVID' yet. Maybe it's because we're not that far removed from it, or maybe it's because they haven't quite figured it out yet, but I'm going to applaud this show for giving it a red hot go. Since the show is about news and current events, it makes sense that the biggest world event this century might bleed into its fictitious fabric. The tone is a little smug (at one point, the characters sneer and chortle at the phrase 'social distancing' haha, how cute), but it tracks with the show's trajectory of running parallel to the 'real world'.

Aside from that, season two is a compelling continuation of season one, and the stacked cast expands from Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Billy Crudup and Mark Duplass to include Julianna Margulies, Will Arnett and Hasan Minhaj.

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